A Christian opposition candidate narrowly won a by-election to Lebanon’s parliament in a result that seemed set to further complicate a 9-month-old political crisis.Â
In the latest showdown between Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s Western-backed government and its opponents, tens of thousands of Lebanese voted in by-elections on Sunday triggered by the assassinations of two anti-Syrian politicians.
Official results showed the opposition candidate won by only 418 votes from about 79,000 cast in the Maronite Christian seat in the Metn district. A pro-government candidate strolled to victory in a Sunni Muslim seat in a Beirut district.
The Metn result endorsed Maronite opposition leader Michel Aoun’s earlier statement his candidate had beaten Amin Gemayel, a former president and a key member of the ruling coalition.
“They just can’t beat me,” said Aoun, who says he is a candidate for presidential elections only weeks away. Maronites once dominated Lebanese politics and while the presidency is still reserved for the sect the post was stripped of some powers by a deal which ended the 1975-1990 civil war.
But Aoun’s opponents said the strong showing by Gemayel had dented the opposition leader’s claim to be the strongest Christian political leader. “It is a victory,” said Gemayel ally Samir Geagea.
Gemayel is an important player in the anti-Syrian majority coalition, which is supported by the United States, France and Saudi Arabia. Aoun is the main Christian leader in the opposition, which includes Hezbollah, an ally of Syria and Iran.
Lebanese troops intervened to break up several clashes between supporters of both camps north of Beirut, in which fists and sticks were used. Two people suffered gunshot wounds.
The political crisis has caused the worst civil strife since the civil war, and some feared a new outbreak of violence during voting. The opposition, grouping Aoun with Hezbollah and other Syrian allies, is demanding veto power in government.
The race for the Maronite seat left empty after Gemayel’s son Pierre, a cabinet minister and parliamentarian, was killed in November had shaped up as a test of strength so close to the presidential elections.
Anti-Syrian Druze leader Walid Jumblatt told the LBC TV station that regardless of the final result, Gemayel had already won by vastly improving the showing of the majority coalition in the Christian heartland compared to national polls in 2005.
Aoun’s candidates easily won seats in Metn in 2005, bolstering his claim to being the strongest Christian leader and allowing him to stake a claim for the presidency.
Official results showed pro-government candidate Mohammad Amin Itani won 85 percent of the vote in the Sunni seat in Beirut vacated by the killing of parliamentarian Walid Eido in June. Turnout was low at 19 percent. The opposition did not run a serious candidate in the by-election.
Siniora hailed the largely peaceful by-elections as a civilised response to political assassination. “Democracy in Lebanon will defeat terrorism,” he said in a statement.
Thousands of Lebanese troops and police tightened security in Metn, where flags and posters of the rival parties adorned balconies, electricity poles and cars.
Gemayel and his allies accuse Syria of orchestrating the killing of Pierre Gemayel, Eido and other anti-Syrian figures. Damascus denies involvement in the killings.
By Nadim Ladki
August 6, 2007Â